Writer on holiday is not a natural role for me. I admit it. I’m not good at holidays. We never had them when I was a child and somehow I’ve never really got the knack of it. But sometimes I accompany The Birdwatcher on one of his birding trips. It is a delight.
Well, for me it is a delight. And The Birdwatcher is kind enough to say he enjoys it too, in spite of my not knowing much about either ornithology or birdwatching etiquette.
I probably won’t read much but I get uneasy if I haven’t got a book to hand. So I like to take one non-fiction and one novel, both chosen wholly for fun.
This time my non-fiction was a memoir by Lev Parikian, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? The author’s situation is the reverse of mine. Basically he knows what he is doing in the matter of puffin-bothering and just fell out of the habit when he grew up. Whereas I have been going along with it for a while, without ever getting much better. He decided that he would take it up again for a year.
His book is a thoughtful and very entertaining saunter through his bird pursuits, memories, music, encounters with experts and much else. It’s a charming journey with delicious laugh-out-loud moments and life-enhancing digressions.
I warmed to Mr Parikian on about page 3 when I found that he, too, is a Snoopy fan.
Now I once went to a Valentine party where all the guests were asked to send each other Valentine cards before the bash. Rather to my surprise – I’ve always been faintly embarrassed by Valentine obligations – I received eight.
One I loved and treasured for years until, of course, I lost it. The card was bright pink and showed Snoopy with his typewriter, dreaming happily of the fame and fortune that his oeuvre would bring him.
The caption? LOVE STORY by E.Rich Beagle.**
As a town dweller I really like the idea of getting away from streets full of exhaust fumes into the great outdoors. Up to a point.
I’m not wild about sitting on a beach and the countryside is full of dangers. What if I caught my foot in a rabbit hole and broke an ankle somewhere where there was no mobile phone coverage to summon assistance? You see my problem.
The Birdwatcher’s presence deals with my health and safety anxieties. I will wander around some hill-top meadow while he climbs down a cliff to sit in a thicket for a couple of hours waiting for a nightingale to show itself. Which it doesn’t, usually. Though he will hear it.
Bloody-minded birds, nightingales, I always think. (I suspect Mr Parikian agrees with me.)
Were I to injure myself The Birdwatcher would return, eventually, and go for such help as was needed. Sorted!
Meanwhile, usually uninjured, I enjoy nature in all its unfamiliar glory.
Those light, rippling sounds – do they come from a little stream trickling through the small wood at my back?
Or are they the result of the breeze ruffling plump young leaves?
On this recent holiday our breeze has been a North Easter. It is gentle enough but carries a distinct touch of the Arctic. In the afternoon sun It acts on my hot skin, the way a two-olive Martini hits the grateful palate after a hard day. Bliss.
Most of my holiday encounters are with birds and butterflies. The birdwatchers are civil and swap sightings of the more elusive creatures. But they don’t do drama. It is otherwise with the bird life.
On this occasion we encountered a female blackbird sitting in the middle of a path, completely hypnotised by the sunlight. “Stoned,” I said. “The thing’s a crackhead.” The Birdwatcher narrowed his eyes. You’re not supposed to ascribe human characteristics to birds. It’s Unsound.
Then there was the heron – I like herons. They’re big and they stand still a lot. Just what the amateur binocular-user can do with. “They always walk as if their feet hurt. Like an elderly waitress,” I said chattily. I would have added like Julie Walters in Two Soups but something told me it wouldn’t be welcomed.
So then we saw a couple of black and white ducks. Aha, I thought. I know them. I first saw them, well to say hello to, in St James’s Park.
I always remember them because they remind me of what a friend of mine, who sowed his wild oats in the 30s, used to call co-respondent shoes.
I refrained from saying so. Instead I consulted my internal cross-referencing system, focused on the little straggly pigtail effect on the back of its head, like an ageing hippy. And came up with the answer. “Tufted duck!”
“Well done,” said The Birdwatcher kindly.
Ideally, we would schedule this trip for a month earlier. By this time, the birds aren’t singing lustily to attract mates any more, they’re feeding chicks and protecting them from predators. Some of them are showing signs of strain. The blue tits, for instance, are definitely looking a bit ragged round the edges.
“Flying in and out of the nest hole wears out their feathers,” said The Birdwatcher. I thought I detected a note of sympathy. Restrained but definitely there.
Only then we came across a pair of swans. Their cygnets were significantly smaller than the other swan pairs’. Frankly they were pretty gormless. The female thumped over a sluice that was protruding about an inch above the water and sailed about a bit, while her three infants tried and tried and TRIED to haul themselves over the obstacle. One managed it.
The smallest one tried to hitch a ride on his father’s back. But Dad shook him off. Dad then stayed with his other two cygnets for a bit. But he got bored and went to join his mate, leaving two little maniacs panicking.
I was overwhelmed with anxiety. “You come back here,” I hissed at the adults. “You’re terrible parents. You’re not even trying to help them over.”
The Birdwatcher sighed. “It’s not a skill they’ve needed to develop,” he said with patience and went to investigate a possible Cetti’s warbler.
I followed. But I kept going back to check whether the little ones had managed the obstacle. Which they did, of course. The last time I caught up with him, The Birdwatcher was crisp. “I take it they’re all safe together again.”
I sniffed a bit and agreed that the family was re-united. I didn’t share my theory that the daft parents were the runts of their year, who had only paired up because nobody else would have them. I didn’t think it would go down well.
He sighed. “You aren’t wet, or I’d suspect you of giving the cygnets a helping hand.”
I probably would have, too. Well, I’m a romantic novelist. I need a happy ending.
** for the benefit of those who don’t do old and soppy movies, Love Story was a blockbuster in the 70s by Erich Segal, turned into a mega movie with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. The tagline was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Which probably messed up a generation of romantic relationships.
Reading this on the last knockings of my own holiday. I’d have been the same with the swans – and I completely agree about Lev Parikian’s book – delightful and very funny.
Great, isn’t it, Lesley? I’m trying to read it slowly so I don’t get to the end too fast. But then I get caught up and…
You are a saint. My idea of hell on wheels. And those swan parents need a severe talking to.
Not a saint at all, Liz. I do really enjoy it. There’s something incredibly Zen about the best moments. And even the worst ones, when your feet hurt and it’s raining hard, you’re out in the fresh air looking at green and growing things.
Delightful post, thank you, Sophie. I’ll never be able to look at a heron again — especially one who’s creeping in to steal frogs and newts from my pond — without seeing Julie Walters and Two Soups.
Thank you Joanna. Nor me. The comparison was immediate and irresistable the first time I saw them in Battersea Park after encountering Two Soups.
Perfect. Like Joanna, the heron analogy will stay with me.
Thank you, Giili. But it’s only because Victoria Wood and Julie Walters caught the waitress with bad feet so perfectly.
I actually remember one when my mother took me out to lunch as a child. She used to walk very slowly and deliberately, as if putting each foot down was painful. Heron to the life.
Wonderful, joyful post that lifted my heart. Thank you.
My pleasure, Liz. I had a very happy time. Glad it shows.
I’m definitely going to get that book. It sounds a classic. Another lovely post!
You won’t be disappointed, Christina!
I really enjoyed this, Sophie – it made me laugh. I loved the caddishly-feathered ducks! You are so right – whenever I see one from now on, I’ll wonder what it’s secretly been up to.
Very glad to share my vision, Elizabeth. Keeping silent out of respect to The Birdwatcher is sometimes quite hard.